Ideas don’t run for president; people do. That’s as true today as it was four years ago. So, it is understandable that much of the press and blog coverage of the 2012 GOP primary race has focused on the personalities, experience and record of the candidates rather than their ideas. In fact, until you know the candidates by their actions, you cannot meaningfully judge what their words will mean in practice. Mitt Romney is the prime example of this, having so inconsistent a record that it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that he’s guided by any sort of coherent political philosophy.
But as it happens, we do have three candidates in this race who stand for a distinctive philosophical approach to domestic policy. One of those, Ron Paul, espouses a radical constitutionalism that exists on the periphery of the conservative movement. Rick Perry, while his issue stances are more conventionally (but not always uniformly) conservative, can best be understood through the lens of his guiding principle as a Texas nationalist – a belief that a significant amount of the powers now wielded by the federal government should be returned to the states. And then there’s Newt Gingrich. Newt generates so many new ideas – he develops more firmly-held political convictions before breakfast each morning than Romney’s had his entire life – that it’s tempting to view them as essentially random. But there is a method to the madness. Setting aside for a moment Gingrich’s personal attributes, let’s look at his ideas, with particular attention to two recent interviews he did – one with Ben Domenech, Brad Jackson and Francis Cianfrocca at Coffee and Markets, the other with Glenn Beck. Both provide a keen window into how Newt views domestic policy issues. In the interests of length, I’ll pass over one of the three pillars of Newt’s worldview (his futurism and faith in new technologies), which has been written about extensively, and focus on two others: his gradualism and his revival of what I call “Reform Conservatism.”
I. The Gradualist
Newt’s penchant for apocalyptic rhetoric, revolutionary slogans and promises to fundamentally rethink things tends to get him branded as an agent of bracing changes; even Jonah Goldberg frames the contest between Newt and Romney as a question of whether Republican voters are in the mood for radical overturning of the status quo. The DNC has echoed this theme by calling Newt “the original Tea Partier,” suggesting – as it did in the 1990s – that Newt wanted to do too much, too fast in ways voters couldn’t stomach.
But that’s Newt’s reputation and rhetorical style; it’s not how he actually looks at domestic legislation. He is, in many ways, a gradualist, a temperamental conservative – not one who resists change for the sake of resisting change, of course (precisely the opposite, as I’ll discuss below) but rather an ardent believer in the idea that policy proposals need to be modest and incremental enough to gain a large share of public support. In this regard, a Gingrich presidency would mark a departure from Karl Rove’s “50 + 1” approach as well as from the bitterly divisive, passed-over-voter-objections approach to Obamacare. Going back to the Contract with America, Newt has long preached the value of “60% issues” or even more dramatically “80/20 issues,” on which a politician can target his proposals to what a large majority of the public actually wants (thus, in the 1990s, welfare reform, congressional reforms, balanced budgets and a capital gains tax cut). In 2009, we had Newt’s Platform of the American People, complete with Newt’s view of the polling on each issue:
1. English should be the official language of government. (87 to 11)
2. We want our elected leaders in Washington to focus on increasing the energy supplies of the United States and lowering the cost of gasoline and electricity. (71 to 18)
3. The option of a single-rate system should give taxpayers the convenience of filing their taxes with just a single sheet of paper. (82 to 15)
4. Every worker should continue to have the right to federally supervised secret ballot election when deciding whether to organize a union. (79 to 12)
5. Keeping the reference to “One Nation Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is very important. (88 to 11)
6. Congress should make it a crime to advocate acts of terrorism, violent conduct, or the killing of innocent people in the United States. (83 to 12)
7. We should dramatically increase our investment in math and science education. (91 to 8.)
8. We believe that if research indicates we could build clean coal plants in the United States with no carbon emissions, it would be important to build such plants as rapidly as possible. (71 to 8.)
9. Illegal immigrants who commit felonies should be deported. (88 to 10)
10. We support giving a large financial prize to the first company or individual who invents a new, safer way to dispose of nuclear waste products. (79 to 16)
Ditto Newt’s philosophy of persuading the public, which dovetails with his “happy warrior” approach in this campaign:
1. Select positive messages.
2. Learn that message.
3. Discipline yourself to stay positive.
4. Make your fights on p